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Why do the police keep posting memes on social media?

With confidence in the police at an all-time low, some forces are attempting to claw back the public’s respect by shaming criminals on Twitter

It seems a given today that everyone and everything must have a social media presence. On corporate social media, there’s been a long history of cheap gimmicks that companies use to draw in eyes. Often these end up being cringeworthy attempts at cultural relevance, where they use misapplied slang or media references, or attempt to foster brand intimacy, like H&M or Burger King calling you ‘bestie’. 

This transformation of corporations into personalities for customers to develop bonds with is an example of the much-discussed ‘parasocial relationship’ dynamic. This is suspect enough when one party is a corporate online persona – but when it’s a police force, the potential for problems vastly increases.

Earlier this year a tweet from Lancashire Police went viral, in which they used a popular meme format to show a man detained in connection with criminal activity. The tweet has had over 17 million views and 85,000 likes from people finding it hilarious and horrific in equal measure. The post was so successful that Lancashire Police started circulating a survey asking followers if they wanted to see more of this kind of content. 

More recently, Wandsworth Police Force posted a tweet in solidarity with London’s National Police Air Service, after they tweeted apologising for “the noise” during the search for Daniel Khalife, reading: “No. Not having this. You do not need to apologise for noise when you are doing such a much-needed job. You’re amazing and WE NEED YOU!!!”. This led to another bizarre exchange between Wandsworth Police and Islington Police, in which the latter jokingly replied, “You ok hun?”

Social media has been used in the process of crime investigation and prevention for a while, and sometimes it makes sense to capitalise on its immense reach, like in missing persons cases. But when police start to use social media as a modern-day pillory, posting photos of suspects or making memes about perpetrators for entertainment, it’s a slippery slope. By associating themselves with humour, the police can gain support, however superficial it may be, and elide the true nature and violence of many of their day-to-day actions and wider social function.

While other police forces are not yet posting memes on their social media accounts – although the popularity of Lancashire Police’s post may soon change this – most forces post photos of perpetrators or suspects to face the judgement and abuse of the public. At one level, this appears as an attempt by police to rehabilitate their image amid widespread anti-police sentiment. Events such as George Floyd’s murder in 2020, which catapulted the call to defund the police to a global stage, the murder of Sarah Everard by a Metropolitan Police constable in 2021 (and the subsequent violent police actions at a commemorative vigil on Clapham Common), and the damning 2023 report by Louise Casey that found the Metropolitan Police to be institutionally racist, homophobic and misogynistic, all show that confidence in the police is on the floor. In June 2023, the policing watchdog even confirmed that the public’s trust in the police had fallen to an all-time low. By being visible on social media, posting about suspects and those arrested, the police can be seen in a way that inspires confidence. By creating these parasocial bonds with followers and posting ‘funny’ content, they can attempt to claw back some of the respect their profession used to receive.

This both is and isn’t working. Lancashire Police received a swathe of positive responses to their viral post, however, it has also calcified the views of those who were already deeply opposed to them – especially as these social media posts often highlight the pettiness of police actions. For example, Lewisham Central Policing Team was recently widely ridiculed for a post about presumably stolen or counterfeit sweets. The photos of Maltesers and Galaxy bars laid out like a drug sting haul (and the lack of clarification on what the actual crime was) led many people to comment that the police taking sweets from people is small-time school playground behaviour, with many pointing out that more serious crimes in the area go ignored due to the police’s focus on petty crime. It probably wasn’t quite the applause they were expecting.

Subjecting people to shame and infamy on a scale unavailable in the days before social media could dissuade would-be criminals. However, the response to these posts suggests another more insidious effect. By farming outrage amongst the public via social media, police accounts help create convenient scapegoats for peoples’ frustrations at the current state of the country. These posts create a hostile environment and foster a climate of peer-to-peer surveillance and policing – something which is already on the rise on social media, as people post strangers going about their daily lives, often with scathing captions.

It suggests a wearing down of empathy both IRL and URL, as instead of thinking about what might drive a person towards crime – the dire economic conditions, lack of preventative care and services, and severe social inequality – we are invited to point and laugh at those who get caught on the wrong side of the law. Not all crime is the result of someone’s socio-economic position, of course, but the rejection of any kind of empathy or understanding for the underlying causes points towards an alienation and lack of community that is becoming endemic. Instead, posts like these are creating a new type of community centred around hostility and ridicule, which is probably something to be concerned about.

LEAP UK, an organisation made up of law enforcement personnel who aim to tackle “disenfranchisement between police and communities” focusing on harmful drug policies, responded to the viral post from Lancashire Police, stating “the police service needs high standards of conduct, and this is as far away from that level as it can get”. Their statement that “police social media is supposed to be a reflection of the service. Would we as a society accept police officers gathering around a crime scene or an arrest, goading and making fun of the people and the scene?” cuts to the heart of the problem: unfortunately the authoritarian, cruel, and petty content does reflect the current state of policing. It is just that social media makes their shortcomings more widely visible than ever before.

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